An Interview with Hearthstone Lead Developer Ben Brode on The Witchwood and The Year of The Raven

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I got a chance to sit down for a chat with Ben Brode over the weekend during his visit to Pax East. It was an enchanting opportunity where I was able to pick the brain of the man responsible for steering one of the best games you can play on your phone. While a large amount of the conversation revolved around the impending Witchwood expansion, we dug into some of the broader topics that seem to perennially be in the hearts and minds of Hearthstone(Free)players and especially mobile players. In the past Touch Arcade has reported on the many ways that mobile developers structure their pricing and in the first question I wanted to know some more about how Hearthstone addresses some of that issue.

TA: Leading up to the Witchwood expansion release has been one of if not the most rewarding times for a player to log in and play via completing daily quests. A player that wants to play for free can sometimes feel outgunned by paying players but this event has been one of the best ways that that gap has been bridged. Was the event targeted at FTP players or was it a more general strategy to increase the hype for the Witchwood?

Ben Brode: Definitely the latter. Our events team does not see the financial side of things, their directive is to make the game as fun as possible. We don’t want to complicate the way you can pay for Hearthstone. We don’t want a dozen different deals running at any given time. Our focus is to provide a very simple purchasing interface and make everything as fun as it can possibly be.

TA: With the introduction of the Rush mechanic, some people are wondering if Charge has a shelf life, do you think there is room for both in the game right now?

Ben Brode: There are years of muscle memory behind charge and it occupies an important design space. However, Rush is probably going to be used a lot more in the future.

TA: Speaking of older mechanics and seeing more new things in Standard mode, we’ve heard rumors that Classic has a possibility to be completely cycled into Wild. Is that something you are considering?

Ben Brode: Classic is intended to be an evergreen set and there is little chance of it being impacted greatly by rotations going forward. It provides a smooth intro for new players. By keeping the majority of the classic set in tact we can be sure that there is a level of familiarity with the mainstays of each class. Early on we did nerf 12 classic cards and this was to push some of the power out to expansion sets. We don’t want a stale meta where every season people just play freeze mage over and over. While a few classic cards may be moved into the wild format, do not expect to see it going anywhere wholesale.

TA: This is the 3rd time you’ve retired multiple sets at a time at the start of a new season. Does it feel different every time?

Ben Brode: Yes most sets do not have the same exact power level and on top of that we are now rotating 3 sets out and 1 in. A 4 set swing is a tremendous shift. Several hundred cards getting juggled means archetypes change and it is always always different. It’s an exciting time to play Hearthstone because everyone gets brought back to the start of that journey of discovery. Its the wild west.

TA: What lessions did you learn from Dungeon Run and what can we expect from Monster Hunt?

Ben Brode: We have 4 unique classes that are available exclusively for Monster Hunt. One is Darius Crowley who uses some warrior cards and is a Cannoneer. His hero ability enables the cannon minion he starts with to fire at whatever is directly across from it, so scooting it to the left or right with other minions will allow you to change what it targets. Toki Timetinker is another hero who has a 0 cost ability that restarts your turn. This is a crazy ability that basically lets you rewind discover or gain a random card effects that dont go your way. Even something like triggering an opponent secret can get undone by this hero ability.

Each of these classes have an end boss nemesis specific to that class that is waiting at the end of the run to foil their plans. Toki’s nemesis, for example, is actually herself from the future! Knowing the time-meddling that she did in her past she has come back to stop herself from messing with the timeline too much. Defeating all four nemeses unlocks a grand finale fight between all the classes and a showdown with Hagatha. Each hero becomes a hero card in your hand and you chose when to employ each one.

TA: Dollmaster Dorian is a new card that opens up an opportunity to reveal your own cards to an opponent. This is a sneaky way of mind-gaming your opponent and pretty unique. Do you have further plans to expand that type of gameplay?

Ben Brode: I really like cards that involve bluffing like Voidcaller. Do I have a big Demon ready to get pulled out? Maybe I have nothing and the right play should have been to remove this minion. Telegraphing is compelling and mind games are fun! We are still exploring a lot of different ideas in that space.

TA: After playing with the “spend all remaining mana" type of cards, I saw some online conversations about a mechanic in another game that worked similarly but was more constrained. The mechanic was called kicker where the card had a base cost and an appropriately statted minion, and then the kicker mechanic allowed you to spend more mana for an upgraded version of that minion. Do you think that with a bigger constraint you can bake more power into a card like that?

This is one of the things I think the new Echo mechanic covers very well. Getting multiple levels of power out of a card. Echo grew out of something almost EXACTLY like that. The mechanic was called ghostly and what it did was that you had a 3 mana 3/3 with a battle cry that added 2 ghostly bananas to your hand that would disappear out of your hand at the end of that round. There was also a 1 mana murloc that was a dinomancer that added a ghostly 9 mana 10/10 to your hand. It was cool but it was also a little frustrating to see that huge minion go away if you could not use it. Some of these cards ended up just losing the ghostly affix altogether and you would just get a permanent minion in your hand instead. A lot of instances they just didn’t need to be ghostly at all. The most fun iteration was when the battle cry just added another ghostly copy to your hand so you could just keep playing it again and again. The first card I designed in that space was Phantom Militia which is a 2/4 taunt. It stayed exactly the same through out all development except that all that text on the card just got replaced with “Echo." We felt that was the most fun implementation of ghostly. It feels a lot like that kicker mechanic where you have the low cost option with additional things to throw on top.

TA: Have any insight on when we may see iPhone X support or graphical updates of that nature?

Ben Brode: Not sure on that, we do love working with Apple and many of us play on the go on the iPhone X.

(note: eventually iPhone X support will become required across the board, this was mainly a probe to see if it was among current talking points they have)

TA: One of my favorite mechanics in the game is discover. You have a random effect but you have this strategic choice to make that is tied in with it. When you have a game like this you have to introduce randomness in some ways. What are your future plans for making choice and strategy a strong partner with randomness?

Ben Brode: The genre is entirely driven by the concept that we are going to shuffle up your deck and put you into situations that you have not seen before. One of the things that is dangerous about Hearthstone is that it is much less random than other card games. Having that guaranteed mana each round means we have to go and look for ways to keep it from each match being too similar. We don’t want there to be one ideal class or deck that just wins the majority of the matches so we spend a lot of time looking for ways to keep matches fresh. We want you as a player to find yourself in situations that require you to think on the fly. One of the things people often get wrong is that they say this game is luck based or skill based. Games don’t really work like that though. Tic-tac-toe is low skill and low luck whereas poker is high skill and high luck. It’s not a slider that you go one direction or the other on. Hearthstone is in that same area as pokeer where there is a high skill requirement that is in part due to the chaos that new situations bring. The skill required to play the game goes up when game diversity goes up and you don’t just see the same scenario each game. I love discover just for that reason, the choice and the strategy can be different each game and it pushes our players to make the best plays they can.

A good example of times when randomness does not increase the skill requirement of the situation is Yogg-saron. Getting to turn 10 to play Yogg-saron does definitely require skill but the actual play of the card is just a sit back and see what happens moment rather than an out-play scenario. It ended up getting too much play at high competitive levels and ended up getting a nerf to reduce the frequency of the card in competitive play. An example of random effects that work well in a strategy moment is Ragnaros, using removal to help land the effect on a high priority target is a great way that randomness influences strategy. It feels much better than a card like Yogg-saron.

I had a great time sitting down with Ben and the excitement about the Witchwood was infectious as we both were considering the really cool ways that Rush and Echo will have an impact on the game. As you may already know this next expansion is only a few days away and there is still time to go get some free decks just by completing daily quests. Be sure to check out that new Monster Hunt mode too, I know I will be diving in head first!

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